An extract from the NHE Essay Prize winner

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From ‘A Eulogy for Nigger’ by David Bradley

David Bradley

DETROIT. Hundreds of onlookers cheered . . . as the National Association for the Advancement of … People put to rest a long-standing expression of racism by holding a public burial for the N-word . . . Two Percheron horses pulled a pine box adorned with . . . a black ribbon printed with a derivation of the word. The coffin is to be placed at historically black Detroit Memorial Park Cemetery.
– Associated Press, July 9, 2007

[…] Word of Nigger’s burial shocked me. I hadn’t known Nigger was even sick.

In hindsight, I see symptoms that Nigger was ailing. The U.S. Geological Survey started changing the names of local landmarks to get Nigger off the maps way back in ’62. In ’79, Richard Pryor declared he would speak Nigger’s name no more. In ’88, Jesse Jackson said the Americans formerly known as black should be called African Americans, to ‘shift the definition from the racial description to a cultural and ethnic identity.’ In ’91, Niggaz Wit Attitude decided they weren’t Niggaz4Life; now they were N.W.A.

Still, there’d been no change in Nigger’s vital signs. Unemployment for black – excuse me, African – Americans was still twice as high as it was for non- African Americans. The median income of African American families was still only 61 percent of that of non-African American families. African Americans still lead in all Department of Justice statistical categories – arrests, convictions, length of sentence, being stopped- and-frisked, also being shot to death multiple times.

But that’s no excuse. Nigger had been my mentor; I should have kept in closer touch. Especially after the Pryor thing. You wouldn’t know it from listening to the Colored People, but Nigger was quite a comedian; he wrote half of Richard’s jokes. Richard used to say Nigger gave him strength, let him rise above. Calling Nigger’s name was ‘like a preacher singing hallelujah’ – Richard’s words, not mine. But then he goes to Africa with ‘white honky bitch’ – again, his words, not mine – and comes back saying he’s sorry he ever spoke Nigger’s name. That had to hurt Nigger, not that he would have shown it. But I bet he said a few choice words about Richard’s mama, whom Nigger knew quite . . . frequently.

Perhaps I should not criticize; it was I who was neglectful. But the way the Colored People buried Nigger made me irate. They did not even pretend to hold a wake, though, as everybody knows, Nigger loved a good time, especially when it was just us . . . chickens. He’d take whatever was on hand, cook it down, spice it up, and serve it on a paper plate like it was on china at the Ritz. Then he’d bring out the libation and . . . well, let me put it this way: Jesus needed water; Nigger could make wine from anything. Then he’d get out his guitar. Some said the Devil did the tuning, but it was Nigger who’d wring the blues out of that old six-string, even with two strings broke. Maybe the Colored People were afraid to have a wake; even dead, Nigger would have been the life of that party.

[…] Nigger had flaws. So does the U.S. Constitution, which gave license to the slave trade and took a cut ‘not exceeding ten dollars’ a head. But the Colored People wouldn’t dream of burying the Constitution . . . and wouldn’t dare try. Legal scholars say the Constitution is a ‘living’ document. Congress declared the third week of pro-football season Constitution Week, during which paeans are to be sung. I’m not dissing the Constitution. I’m just saying Nigger deserved better Last Words than the Colored People gave him. So I wrote a Eulogy for Nigger. It went something like this:

Friends, Americans (African and non-African), countrypersons: lend me your ears. I come to bury Nigger, not to praise him. He was my friend, faithful and just to me, but these honorable Colored People say otherwise, and I speak not to dispute, only to augment. But before you heap clods and contumelies on his coffin, you should know that Nigger was more than a word.

His name was Nigger. N-I-G-G-E-R, from the Latin masculine nominative niger meaning not just ‘black’ but ‘shining black.’ He was born in Virginia in the eighteenth century. His mother, black and comely as the bride of Solomon, was a slave and, partus sequitur ventrem, so was he. His father – free, white, and wealthy – was their owner. His name was Jefferson.

[…] To be honest, Nigger often lived down to Jefferson’s definition. Jefferson said, despite ‘hard labour through the day,’ Nigger would ‘be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later.’ Everybody knows Nigger was no early-to-bed. Nigger did drink, dip, gamble, and smoke the first thing smoking. Nigger did cuss prodigiously in routine conversation, using both Anglo-Saxon monosyllables and Latinate polysyllables, often employing ‘mother’ as a prefix. Nigger did frequent juke joints and dance with women of any age or girth, moving his hips more than his feet. Nigger was indeed ardent after his female . . . and yours. Nigger did sometimes carry a razor. Nigger did do a little county time, from time to time.

[…] Take Nigger out of American history; all that’s left is indentured servitude.

[…] Put it this way: Nigger knew the price black Americans paid to keep on being Americans, to keep on loving that great white witch . . . That’s why I loved Nigger. And while I do not insist you love him too, I do insist you recognize my right to speak his name.

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Extract reprinted with permission. ‘A Eulogy for Nigger’ by David Bradley.

Read Ingrid Wassenaar’s interview of David Bradley in our BookBuzz section, here.

David Bradley et al, A Eulogy for Nigger and other Essays (Notting Hill Editions:  2015) 978-1-910749-08-1, 150pp., hardback.